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Robert Frost’s poetry is principally associated with the life and landscape of New England, where he spent much of his life. He is a profoundly modern poet in his adherence to language as it is actually spoken, in the psychological complexity of his portraits, and in the degree to which his work is infused with layers of ambiguity and irony. His poetry also has many characteristics of romanticism, for example, his use of the pastoral, but he diverges from this romanticism. Modernism is, essentially, escaping traditional forms of poetry without abandoning them completely; “In poetry, modernism is associated with moves to break from the iambic pentameter as the base unit of verse, to introduce verse libre, symbolism and other new forms of writing” (Ayres, 3). Therefore, modernism is associated with introducing new forms, but not abandoning the traditional forms entirely. Additionally, Frost believed that the surface of a poem should be simple and immediate, but upon further scrutiny the poem should reveal itself as allusive; for example, his poems Stopping by woods on a snowy evening, The Road not taken, Birches and Home Burial, all allude to a deeper and more complex meaning than what appears on the surface. On the other hand, it could also be argued that Frost’s poetry has a degree of romanticism to it. This is particularly evident in the fact that Frost took much of his inspiration and technique from the romantic poet William Wordsworth; “Frost’s most important predecessor was Wordsworth. In his preface to the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth had attacked ‘poetic diction’ and insisted that poetry must be the language actually spoken, the language of conversation, as he specified, in the middle and lower classes of society”
(Perkins, 234). Despite this apparent resemblance with romanticism, the influence of Wordsworth was “simply, not a so-called Romantic one: indeed, Frost comes closest to direct tribute in remarks on “Ode to Duty”, in which Wordsworth discards his own ‘romanticism’. It is this disenchanted poet who informs Frost’s work” (Lea, 86).Therefore, he takes his inspiration from his forebears but does not dwell on the romantic aspects of their poetry; he takes inspiration from Wordsworth in terms of Wordsworth’s apparent disassociation from romanticism. The idea that romanticism imagines nature as transparent and arrayed in accordance with human wishes is a gross misrepresentation: the nature of romantic poets such as Wordsworth is dynamic and changing. Again, Frost’s poetry reflects this dynamic; it does not take from the romantic merely the simplicity of language and meaning. While in some respects romanticism must, for Frost, be a diminished ideology, he shares with his romantic forebears a vision of the natural world as the source of context of the human life. In addition, his use of the pastoral is a technique in which he shares with his romantic forebears, but he uses this technique only to evaluate and comment on the modern lifestyle. He juxtaposes the natural world with the modern world not to present man’s unity with nature, but his disenchantment with it due to industrialisation. His use of the pastoral also registers a protest against the disintegration of values in the modern society and here he is at one with the great poets of the modern age such as Yeats and Eliot. Frost’s poems show deep appreciation of the natural world and sensibility about the human aspirations. His images, such as woods, trees and brooks, were usually taken from everyday life, but “his landscapes and depictions of country things are as much informed by the mythology of pastoral literature – from Virgil through to Milton, Wordsworth, and
Thoreau” (Faggen, 3). This imagery makes it easy for readers to follow Frost into deeper meanings. Often Frost used the rhythms and vocabulary of ordinary speech or even the looser free verse of dialogue; techniques closely associated with the modern. Furthermore, his poetry reflects such modernist features as allusiveness in style and interest in mental states and irrationalism; for example, as shown in the poem Home Burial. In this poem, Frost describes two terrible events: the death of a child and the breakdown of a marriage. The death of the child is tragic, but the couple’s inability to communicate eventually is what destroys the marriage. Additionally, obsession with the technique of symbolism is ever-present in Frost’s poetry, a technique which also defines modernism. An example of this symbolism is in The Road Not Taken. This poem symbolises the universal problem of making the right choices in life. Similarly, in Birches, the birch trees and the climbing of them symbolise man’s desire to escape from the harsh reality of industrialisation and the modern world. This technique of using the pastoral to comment on the modern world makes Frost a profoundly modern poet. The Road Not Taken is a perfect example of modernist poetry. The poem depicts nature and discusses its beauty. Nature, and the theme of the wood in particular, is used as a symbol to describe deep personal feelings and life experiences; “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both” (Frost, 105). These opening lines encapsulate the deeper meaning of the poem; that it is difficult to make choices in life and if it was possible we would rather not have to make these choices. On the other hand, one could be forgiven for mistaking these lines for romanticism due to the simplicity and beauty of the language. Beauty is depicted and enhanced in this poem by the poet’s rendering of
delicate expressions that come together to form a beautiful composition of nature at its best; “it was grassy and wanted wear” (Frost, 105). But it is the complex ambiguities that undercut this delicate language which makes the poem profoundly modern. Additionally, in The Road Not Taken, Frost uses the modern technique of symbolism. The poem gives only some hints to the reader to comprehend the meaning of the poem; “And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black” (Frost, 105). On the surface this appears to mean that the speaker wanted to merely take either path because nobody had been there before, but this actually symbolises the speaker’s desire to carve his own path in life and not to follow the path of others. The path itself is also a symbol; a symbol of future. Furthermore, the poem has a universal meaning to it; the imagery of wood represents the life experience of humans and implies not only wisdom, but also the entire life of a human being. These symbols are also used metaphors in this poem, and the poem itself is a metaphor or parable for the experience of man. Metaphor is another modern method of poetry and is often present in Frost’s works. In saying this, “all metaphors break down somewhere, as of course they must because a metaphor, no matter how rich or apt, is not an identity, never an exact correspondence” (Oster, 155). In other words, Frost meant for these metaphors to be broken down, as a metaphor is not an identity and cannot be seen or touched, for example; “My love may be a rose in her softness, her sweetness, her beauty, or even her tendency to hurt me. But she does not grow outside in the garden on a stem” (Oster, 155). Therefore, Frost’s intention is merely to create connotations, to expand the reader’s mind. This insight into the ability of the human psyche is the sign of a profoundly modern poet.
One poem which is particularly deceptive in defining which genre Frost falls into is Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening; “A close reading of the poem[s] will reveal the poet’s consistent interest in the interaction between the human figure and the natural scene. One of the most important symbols of this meeting...is the woods”. (Greiner, 209).Therefore, it would appear that the poem is romantic as it primarily concerns man’s relationship with nature, but what lies beneath the surface is far from traditional romanticism; “The poet-figure pulls back from the woods as many times as he glances longingly toward them, and it is this “hesitancy”...that makes Frost modern instead of a 19 th Century romantic poet” (Greiner, 209). Hence, the poem is not Romantic as man is not at one with nature, he fears it; “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. (Frost, 224-225) Frost was able to capture the natural tone of human conversation in this poem. Ideas, emotions and feelings are expressed in ordinary language. The same is true of Frost’s forebear, William Wordsworth, who uses similar language in his poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud; “I wandered lonely as a cloud/...When all at once I saw a crowd, / A host of golden daffodils” (Wordsworth, 77). In this sense, it could be argued that Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a romantic poem due to Frost’s similarity to his romantic forebears. On the other hand, Wordsworth’s poetry is genuinely simple, whereas Frost’s is deceptively plain. Frost’s language in this poem contains simple words but complex allusions whereas Wordsworth’s poetry contains simple language and less complex thoughts.
Additionally, in this poem, Frost’s poetry does not just resemble romanticism but also metaphysical poetry. He writes; “Between the woods and Frozen lake/ The darkest evening of the year” (Frost, 224). This appears to be a direct reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy, where at the centre of hell Satan is trapped in a frozen lake. Again, Frost takes his inspiration from his forebears, but adapting the ideas to be more modern. Furthermore, these particular lines imply a dark underlying meaning, which is difficult to decode due to the delicate and simple language. Frost’s poem Home burial is, perhaps, a more obvious modern poem. This is firstly due to the fact that it is a narrative, with no strict metre or verse form. It does have some romantic qualities due to pastoral references, but Frost presents these references as very dark; “It is a pastoral- except that it is a very dark one. Insofar that it tells a story, it is, of course, a narrative; the means of that story’s transportation, though, is dialogue, and it is the means of transportation that defines a genre” (Broadsky, 18). However, the pastoral was created by Frost’s romantic forebears, so it could be argued that the poem is not unwaveringly modern, although the poem is, in fact, “a love poem, and if only on these grounds it qualifies as pastoral” (Broadsky, 20). Another defining modern quality of this poem is Frost’s use of suggestion and symbolism; for example, in the first line he writes, “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs” (Frost, 51). This staircase is not just a literal staircase, but it “suggests a hierarchy of significance” (Broadsky, 21) which changes throughout the course of the poem. Additionally, Frost writes;
““My words are nearly always an offence. I don’t know how to speak of anything So as to please you. But I might be taught I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.”(Frost, 52) The enjambment in these few lines symbolises the descent of the stairs, and the stairs again resemble the hierarchy between the man and his wife. Furthermore, this enjambment creates a tone of chaos and highlights “the speakers hectic mental pacing” (Broadsky, 36). Again, this awareness of the human mind and its flaws is a modern revolution, hence why Frost is a profoundly modern poet. The theme of rationality versus imagination is yet another theme which proves Frost’s poetry to be profoundly modern. The hard-working people described in his poetry are forced to choose between the two concepts and the two cannot exist simultaneously. This is extremely similar to the poetry of W.B. Yeats. Many of Yeats’s poems concern the struggle for balance between the real and the imaginary, or the balance between real life and art. These are also themes in Frost’s poetry, which define him as modern. An example of a poem concerning these concepts is his poem Birches. In this particular poem, the narrator wishes he could climb a birch tree as he did in his childhood and leave the rational world behind, if only for a moment; “So was I once myself a swinger of birches; / And so I dream of going back to be”(Frost, 122). A creative tension between the physical and the metaphysical dominates the poem. This is not a theme that would not have been used by Frost’s romantic forebears, as it is a tension created through suggestiveness; an underlying notion. In fact, this underlying theme again bears a striking resemblance to Yeats’s works; for example, Yeats uses imagery of
trees in his poem Sailing to Byzantium to symbolise the attempt to join the physical and the metaphysical. Frost’s Birches focuses on these trees, perhaps symbolising the joining of the real and the imaginary; the trees, with their roots in the ground and their branches pointing towards the heavens may symbolise Frost’s awareness of the transience of life. This is further supported in the lines, “I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk/ Toward heaven” (Frost, 122). Again, this heavy use of symbolism as used by Frost, and the fact that it was used by his modern contemporaries, is what defines his poetry as profoundly modern. On the other hand, as in many of his other poems, his delicate and beautiful language could be mistaken for romanticism if not closely read. Frost’s use of the pastoral in his poetry is what leads many to believe that he is a romantic poet, but the pastoral in his poetry is not traditionally romantic as nature is a symbol of life in general, and is not just a symbol of beauty. Furthermore, “by insisting on the gulf separating man and nature, he directly opposes the romantic attempt to bring the two together...he conceives of the physical world as a distinct level of being” (Lynen, 167). Therefore, Frost is a realist, not a romantic, and despite all of his similarities to his forebears, he is a profoundly modern poet. Bibliography Ayres, David. Modernism: a short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Broadsky, Joseph, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. Homage to Robert Frost. London: Faber, 1997.
Greiner, Donald. Robert Frost: the poet and his critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1974. Lynen, John F. The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost. London: Yale University Press, 1960. Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976. Robert Frost: Modern Critical Views- Ed. by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1986. The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost- Ed. by Robert Faggen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. The Poetry of Robert Frost- Ed. by Edward Connery Lathem. London: Jonathon Cape Limited, 1972. Yeats, W.B. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1994. References Ayres, David. Modernism: a short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Broadsky, Joseph, Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. Homage to Robert Frost. London: Faber, 1997. Faggen, Robert. ‘Introduction’. The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost- Ed. by Robert Faggen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Greiner, Donald. Robert Frost: the poet and his critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1974.
Lea, Sydney. ‘From Sublime to Rigmarole: Relations to Frost and Wordsworth’. Robert Frost: Modern Critical Views- Ed. by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1986. Lynen, John F. The Pastoral Art of Robert Frost. London: Yale University Press, 1960. Oster, Judith. ‘Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor’. The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost- Ed. by Robert Faggen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Perkins, David. A History of Modern Poetry. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976. The Poetry of Robert Frost- Ed. by Edward Connery Lathem. London: Jonathon Cape Limited, 1972. Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. (Cited at http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&safe=active&rlz=1R2GPCK_en&tbs=bks%3A1&q=w ordsworth+i+wandered+lonely+as+a+cloud&ag=f&agi&agl=oq=&gs_rfai= ) Yeats, W.B. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1994.
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